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Intense disagreements about the Israel-Hamas war fuel cancel culture

We should be mindful of the chilling effect of firing and deplatforming people for speech on issues of public concern.
Flags of Israel and Palestine and barbed wire

A week after the Israel-Hamas war broke out, Michael Eisen, editor-in-chief of the scientific journal eLife, took to X to post an article from the satirical newspaper The Onion bearing the headline, “Dying Gazans Criticized For Not Using Last Words To Condemn Hamas.” After receiving pushback, Eisen wrote, “Every sane person on Earth is horrified and traumatized by what Hamas did and wants it to never happen again.” Nonetheless, he said he was “also horrified by the collective punishment already being meted out on Gazans, and the worse that is about to come.” 

Days later, eLife’s board of directors removed Eisen from his position as editor-in-chief.

The board said Eisen’s “approach to leadership, communication and social media has at key times been detrimental to the cohesion of the community we are trying to build and hence to eLife’s mission.” Whatever other issues may have contributed to the decision, Eisen’s endorsement of The Onion’s satire was apparently the last straw.

In the wake of the October 7 attack, FIRE explained that amid discord over the Israel-Hamas war, America needs to recommit to — not abandon — free speech. The number of FIRE cases involving student and faculty speech related to the conflict has predictably increased in the last few months.

The scene off campus is also bleak.

Eisen’s ouster is just one of many examples of someone losing their job or platform because of what they’ve said about the conflict. The 92nd Street Y canceled an event featuring novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen after he signed an open letter calling for an end to the “unprecedented and indiscriminate violence” by Israel in Gaza. Melissa Barrera lost her starring role in the “Scream” horror franchise for sharing a post accusing Israel of genocide. A Florida school district placed a teacher on leave after she sent district officials an email asking them to “publicly recognize the Palestinian community” in its communications about the conflict.

And while most examples have involved pro-Palestinian speech, pro-Israel speakers are hardly safe from retaliation. NYU Langone Health fired cancer biologist Benjamin Neel for pro-Israel social media posts including a political cartoon that lampooned pro-Palestinian protesters by depicting them holding signs with messages like “BEHEADING IS RESISTANCE” and “PROUD OF OUR RAPIST MARTYRS.”

The list goes on.

We shouldn’t ignore the climate of fear and mass self-censorship that arises when people know their paycheck depends on hiding their political opinions in and outside of work.

With the exception of the Florida school district, these incidents don’t involve a government actor, so they don’t raise First Amendment issues. Yet, as FIRE has said many times, the government isn’t the only threat to free speech. In “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill warned of the threat of “social tyranny,” or the “tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compels all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.”

Free speech rights and free speech culture

As important as First Amendment rights are, free speech also depends on a cultural climate that supports the exercise of those rights. FIRE Executive Vice President Nico Perrino wrote that free speech culture entails a set of “norms that see value in curiosity, dissent, devil’s advocacy, thought experimentation, and talking across lines of difference; where our first instinct in response to speech we dislike isn’t to find a way to censor it — or ‘cancel’ the speaker — but to meet it with more speech.”

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A thriving culture of free expression relies in part on cultural institutions that embrace and promote this value. If anything, it’s even more important for such institutions to fulfill their role of facilitating dialogue when seismic world events deepen society’s ideological fault lines.

The actions of private employers can also have a major impact on free speech culture. They’re not bound by the First Amendment, so they can generally choose to dissociate from individuals based on their views. Freedom of association is a crucial right, especially for organizations with a distinct expressive purpose. Planned Parenthood should not have to keep on a staffer who vocally opposes abortion rights. Likewise, the NRA should have the right to fire an employee who supports repealing the Second Amendment. As the Supreme Court said more than 60 years ago, “It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect” of civil liberties including freedom of speech. 

But while we should respect employers’ freedom of association, we shouldn’t ignore the climate of fear and mass self-censorship that arises when people know their paycheck depends on hiding their political opinions in and outside of work, even when those opinions have nothing to do with their job or the mission of their employer.

A norm against firing people for their speech on matters of public concern

At this point, some readers might ask: “OK, but are you saying companies shouldn’t fire employees who openly celebrate terrorism?”

First, as the examples in this piece show, cancel culture’s predictable domino effect is now resulting in people losing jobs for speech about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that most people consider pretty tame compared to applauding the murder of civilians. 

Does anyone know where the line is? 

If you don’t know what you can say, and the consequences for saying the wrong thing are as serious as losing a job, many are rationally going to avoid saying anything that could conceivably get them in trouble. They may completely steer clear of a subject as divisive and polarizing as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than try to navigate a career-ending minefield. 

Second, the argument here isn’t that companies should never fire an employee for their speech. Some employers may personally find working with people who hold certain extreme views intolerable, and, ultimately, it’s their right to dissociate from that person. But if more employers simply put more weight on the free speech side of the scale when making these decisions, that would be a win for the culture. We don’t want to find ourselves in a society where most or all employers — not just cause-based organizations but ordinary businesses — treat any off-the-clock comments deviating from the employer’s views on hot-button political issues as grounds for termination.

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There are no hard and fast rules. But employers should at least embrace a strong presumption against firing someone for opinions they express in their personal capacity, outside of work, on matters of public concern. 

Private employers don’t have to abide by the First Amendment, but they should look to its sensible principles as a guide for instituting policies that don’t unduly restrict employees’ freedom of speech in their private lives. In the public employment context, courts balance employees’ right to comment as citizens on matters of public concern against an employer’s ability to run an efficient operation. At the end of the day, a business is a business, and if, for example, an employee’s speech significantly hurts the company’s bottom line or creates so much discord within the company that it’s unable to function efficiently, it’s understandable for the employer to take action. 

But all things considered, free speech culture benefits from fewer people losing their livelihoods for speaking their minds, especially off the clock. Gainful employment should not come at the cost of democratic participation.

Consider, too, that speech-related firings are often a knee-jerk reaction to outside pressure — and many are likely an attempt to preempt backlash, given the current climate. Transient social media mobs controlling the range of acceptable speech on issues of active public debate is not ideal. Every time employers yield to pressure campaigns, they encourage more of the same. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. Often the employer’s best solution is just to hold its nose for a few days. The mobs tend to run out of steam quickly. 

In the free speech culture that FIRE is championing, these campaigns would be vanishingly rare, and businesses would find themselves in these difficult positions less often. More people would reject the idea that someone’s political opinions should determine whether they can pursue their desired line of work.

Cancel culture doesn’t change minds

This certainly isn’t the first time people have lost positions for expressing even relatively mainstream political opinions. The term “cancel culture” entered the lexicon well before October 7. As Greg Lukianoff explains in his new book, “The Canceling of the American Mind,” the phenomenon has pervaded American culture for nearly a decade. It wasn’t long ago that Levi Strauss pressured its president to resign over her opposition to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, or that a leading medical journal placed its editor-in-chief on leave because of comments a deputy editor made criticizing the use of the term “structural racism.” Greg’s book is filled with similar stories.

Ultimately, it’s up to each and every one of us to help foster a culture of free expression in which Americans can reap the full benefits of the First Amendment. 

Successful cancellations don’t change minds, but they do drive resentment in people sympathetic to the speaker’s views, making them eager to turn the tables at the first opportunity. A shared commitment to hashing out our disagreements in the arena of public debate is the only way out of this vicious cycle of reprisal. By opposing cancel culture even when it targets people with whom we disagree, we provide greater protection to the speech we value.

If more companies stood up for their employees’ right to speak in their personal lives on matters of public importance, it would set a precedent that encouraged other companies to follow suit, slowing the momentum of cancel culture. 

Ultimately, it’s up to each and every one of us to help foster a culture of free expression in which Americans can reap the full benefits of the First Amendment. Either we live our values now — when it matters most — or invite their demise.

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